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LIFE

China’s ancient treasures under siege from army of tomb raiders

Historians fear looting of ancient burial sites has reached epidemic proportions as would-be grave robbers team up through social media

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 December, 2015, 1:01pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 December, 2015, 2:25pm

It’s perhaps not surprising that grave robbing has a long tradition in China – after all, Chinese civilisation stretches back several thousand years. But a 21st century twist is turning this age-old crime into an epidemic. Inspired by get-rich-quick yarns and a series of popular novels, young migrant workers and peasants have teamed up in the thousands through internet chat rooms to loot historic tombs in key provinces.

A band of five led by a migrant worker surnamed Nuan was among the more recent raiders. In May the gang travelled hundreds of kilometres to the drab rural township of Huixi in southeastern Zhejiang province, and made off with a carved stone horse from a 400-year-old mausoleum.

Under the cover of darkness, they drove up to the tomb of a high-ranking minister of the Ming imperial court named Qin Minglei. The complex, which had survived the Cultural Revolution campaign to destroy the “four olds” – old culture, customs, habits and ideas – was protected as an important cultural relic and guarded by surveillance cameras.

But the gang managed to turn the cameras away from the tomb and, using a crane and steel cables, lifted the two-tonne stone horse on to their truck and drove back to their home county of Ningjin in Hebei province.

The artefact was put on the black market for between 200,000 yuan (HK$242,000) and 300,000 yuan

although it was estimated to be worth more than one million yuan. Unfortunately for the gang, none of the antique dealers they approached made a bid.

Police eventually caught the looters and recovered the stone horse in a deserted yard in Ningjin six weeks after the mausoleum raid.

Nuan, a former handyman, told police he picked up basic knowledge about antiquities and tomb-looting techniques from reading The Grave Robbers’ Chronicles, a popular series of novels featuring an adventurer named Wu Xie, as well as online chat groups about the series.

Written by Xu Lei, the stories were initially published on a website and soon drew more than 18 million views, sparking a craze for tales combining grave robbing and the supernatural. The books started appearing in print in 2011, and spin-offs such as comic books, video games and a film and TV series followed.

Fans also set up online forums discussing topics related to the books, from bloodsucking zombies to the search for ancient treasures.

It was through online chatrooms that Nuan recruited his accomplices and even secured 2,000 yuan in financing for his scheme. His backer, surnamed Feng, also came under investigation for assisting the crime.

But this gang of five are undoubted greenhorns; experienced tomb looters would never consult a novel for tips.

Graves have been plundered for thousands of years in China, but the practice has spread at an unprecedented pace since the country opened up in the 1980s, says Ni Fangliu, a member of the Archaeologist Association of Jiangsu.

Indeed, Ni, who has written five books on the looting of Chinese antiquities, estimates there may be as many as 100,000 full-time tomb raiders in the country.

INFOGRAPHIC: Tomb raiders in China (to see the full-size graphic, click here)

In the past, tomb raiders were mainly avaricious warlords; farmers and other labourers were too bound by superstition to risk being cursed for intruding on the domain of the dead. But over the last 30 years, a ballooning army of migrant workers and peasants have joined the drive to excavate centuries-old mausoleums and ransack them for valuables.

The haul could be substantial: filled with jewellery, ceramics and bronze ware to ensure comfort in the afterlife, some tombs are so opulent they have been described as “underground palaces”.

One of the few Chinese researchers studying grave robbery, Ni says growing wealth in China has given rise to a lucrative illicit market in antiquities as collectors vie to acquire prized artefacts without considering their provenance.

Enterprising criminals have even faked an entire ancient tomb to convince buyers of the authenticity of the forged artefacts they were flogging, he adds. “There is an old saying that goes ‘grave robbing makes one a millionaire’,” Ni says. “It is often the case that the first pot of gold earned from a stolen relic is enough to start an antiques business.”

China’s new generation of tomb raiders are making use of the spread of the internet to hold consultations and recruitment online, and utilising more advanced tools such as metal and gas detectors in their search for hidden treasure.

The activity is so widespread, “in some provinces, nine out of 10 ancient tombs may have already been ransacked by grave robbers”, says Lei Xingshan, an archaeology professor at Peking University.

Among the best-known casualties of looting is the Gaoling Mausoleum in Henan, believed to be the burial site of Cao Cao, a leading ruler during the Three Kingdoms period dating to AD220. Archaeologists entering the chambers found empty packets of instant noodles, bottled water, cigarettes and buckled floor tiles – signs that multiple gangs of raiders had scoured the complex for burial objects.

Expert tomb robbers often have a good grasp of local history and the development of noble clans, which may give them clues about the value of funeral objects buried in family cemeteries. Knowledge of feng shui is also useful because the ruling classes ensured that they were buried in auspicious sites.

“Grave robbers would search the terrain for sites backing onto hills, facing streams and ideally situated on the metaphoric vessels of the ‘dragon veins’, which point to power and fortune,” explains feng shui master Sheungkoon Chi-ching. “They would also examine the surroundings, such as the flora and the colour of soil.”

Given its secretive nature, tomb raiding used to be a family business, with know-how kept within a small circle, Ni says. But the “big bang” of the internet has made it easy for individuals to team up, and for rookies to learn from more experienced raiders.

Ancient Tomb Bar, a forum on Baidu Tieba message board, gives a glimpse of the process.

“Apprentices and Partners Wanted! Those who are brave and diligent give me your contact details,” reads a post from someone using the handle Zhuanshengdianlunhui.

The writer said he had been digging huo (looters’ jargon for artefacts) for two years, and was prepared to split the profits. His post attracted 65 respondents, many of whom provided their QQ numbers, the Chinese equivalent of instant messaging screen names.

There are ongoing queries and discussions about grave robbing techniques, with topics ranging from feng shui knowledge to the selection of hi-tech probes.

Complaining about layers of stone blocking him from a tomb chamber in southwestern Sichuan, web user Huwai911, wrote “I almost give up.”

“Blow it up!” advised respondent Gebilaowang826. “My team is professional. We can help you out as long as profits are divided with us.”

Archaeologists decry the destructive impact of increasingly aggressive tomb raiders who have no compunction about using explosives to remove barriers to their path to riches.

“As those guys break into a chamber, our cultural heritage is already damaged,” says Peking University’s Lei.

As the tomb raids have escalated, Beijing has ramped up its anti-looting efforts.

In May, police detained 175 alleged tomb raiders in what officials described as China’s biggest antiquities trafficking case since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.

The operation, which involved about 1,000 police from six provinces, recovered 1,168 artefacts worth more than 500 million yuan, the Public Security Ministry said. Among the most precious was a 5,000-year-old “jade pig dragon” illegally excavated from a site in northeastern Liaoning province.

Investigators found a well-oiled network, with different tasks from site excavation to contacting traders on the black market divided between 10 teams.

“They are extremely well-organised,” Ni says. “They have a clear division of labour, and close ties with middlemen linking a stolen object to the underground market.”

To hide its origins, an illegally excavated artefact will usually change hands at least three times – going from looters at a remote rural site through a network of dealers to a regional antique hub before reaching a port to be shipped overseas, several antique dealers told the Post.

It is often the case that the first pot of gold earned from a stolen relic is enough to start an antiques business
Ni Fangliu, archaeologist

Negotiations can take place in dozens of online chat groups. A trader from Zhejiang surnamed Yang invited bids for “a newly dug out bronze mirror of East Han dynasty”, with pictures of the object. “It is 100 per cent authentic,” he said. “My source is very reliable.”

Once the smuggled artefact reaches an international trading centre like Hong Kong, dealers declare it as a Chinese artefact secured overseas that can then be legally traded in the mainland.

To bypass customs barriers, smugglers may also classify a precious antique vase as a reproduction that normally sells for a few hundred yuan.

Research by Alice Lovell Rossiter, a masters student at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, found that a huge number of antiques exported from China were valued at less than half the worth they were assigned on arrival in the United States.

“Objects over 100 years of age are misclassified in order to avoid scrutiny by Chinese export officials, then reclassified properly when brought to the United States,” Rossiter wrote in her thesis published last year.

Examining records from the United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Database from 2000 to 2012, Rossiter found a discrepancy of US$1.4 billion between the declared values, suggesting that plenty of Chinese artefacts were being shipped abroad in contravention of mainland law.

“The rampancy is boosted by huge demand,” says Lei of Peking University. “Many collectors are filling up their private museums with artefacts obtained from shady sources.”

But as ancient burial sites in Henan and Shaanxi, the historical “cradles” of civilisation in central China, are emptied out, professional looters have turned their attention farther afield.

Over the past decade, the tomb raiders have fanned out to Xinjiang in the northwest and Guangdong in the southeast, police websites showed.

“It seems [looters] are now pinning their hopes on graves damaged during the Cultural Revolution,” Ni says. “The Red Guards destroyed tomb structures above ground but usually left the chambers untouched.”

Meanwhile, popular novels portraying tomb raiders as brave, intelligent figures such as Lara Croft lead the “young and curious” into the nefarious trade, without feeling guilty about wiping out China’s cultural heritage, Lei says: “It makes us archaeologists very worried.”